The Error of St. Patrick

St. Patrick
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My wife recently brought me to a local curiosity shop where she enjoys hunting to find something extraordinary. Picking our way through a labyrinth of treasure and trash—the indescribable flotsam and jetsam of life—she pointed to a place on the cluttered pegboard wall. There, peering piercingly through a tangle of frames, infernal bric-a-brac, mannequin heads wearing unwearable hats, snowshoes and fishing poles, rusty lanterns, and gauche man-cave décor, was the face of St. Patrick. 

Amid all that junk, that bizarre eclecticism, hung a decorative tondo over three-feet in diameter of Ireland’s patron saint. It was painted on canvas affixed to a hard backing—a piece no doubt salvaged from one of the many noble old ethnic churches from the industrial age of Scranton that have been demolished over the years, or worse yet, redecorated. 

It was a striking find, and we bought it. By “bought,” I mean rescued, as Catholics should take whatever opportunity, however slight or strange, to assert our Faith and restore honor to those sacred things that have been consigned to the dustbin. St. Patrick is, unfortunately, used to such grungy company, being a kind of symbol of cultural loss and lassitude given the way his feast day is kept in the United States (if “kept” is the right word). Patrick was first and foremost a missionary, and the neopagans are ripe for a reckoning.

But there is another way that St. Patrick is painfully applicable to our time. We are living through a period of tremendous trouble and turmoil in the American Catholic Church, and that is largely because of the errors of priests and bishops—errors both great and small, ranging from the abuse of children, to milquetoast liturgies, to excessive COVID-19 protocols that have relegated the Sacraments to nonessentials. St. Patrick was guilty of a famous priestly error himself, and there is something serious to be weighed in considering the reaction of the one who suffered by it.

After miraculously resisting the druid forces sent to destroy him on Easter Sunday, 433, St. Patrick won permission from King Laoghaire to preach the Catholic Faith to the people of Ireland. So Patrick, together with an army geared for the conversion of a nation comprised of priests, judges, smiths, soldiers, cooks, gardeners, brewers, farmers, masons, carpenters, brick-makers, artists, tailors, poets, and musicians, shook the four green fields with his crozier.

In Connaught, Patrick christened the daughters of the High King of Rathcroghan after his preaching on the triune nature of God swept across the whole of Roscommon County. In Ulster, Patrick established the site for the great Cathedral of Armagh, where the unity of the Irish under the Faith was proclaimed. In Leinster, new Christians were made while old idols were unmade. In Munster, Patrick baptized King Angus of Cashel, a man of great fame as a warrior, whose determination to be baptized was a wonder to many.

During this service in Munster, an event occurred now renowned in the legendary tapestry of St. Patrick’s life. The missionary bishop stood before the mighty king and preached with his customary fervor and fire. In the midst of his sermon, Patrick accidentally planted his crozier, which bore a pointed ferrule, with emphatic force upon Angus’s foot, piercing it through and through. Angus bore the pain without a flinch, allowing the bishop to complete the ritual. Right before the baptism proper, Patrick was alarmed to see the man standing in a pool of blood and was further distraught to learn of the injury he had caused. 

When asked why he had remained silent, King Angus confided that he thought it was part of the ceremony, some sort of reenactment of the piercing of Christ that he was now to share, and so he endured it with heroic poise. Patrick was deeply moved by this Irish hardiness, so ready to suffer to receive the joys of heaven, though brought on in this instance through an error of his, an error which brought unnecessary pain to a member of his flock.

This is a legend about how a Catholic suffered a physical injury by a zealous, well-intentioned bishop, and Angus’s reaction is one that we might meditate on, as so many Catholics today have been hurt or wounded, whether physically or spiritually, by clerics who do not intend offense even as they dole it by mistake. Obviously, those injuries which are purposely given by the sinful weakness or vicious purpose of abusive priests are very different, although the damage of such crimes extends far beyond their immediate victims, creating circumstantial victims as well. Even so, are Catholics always to withstand the errors of priests as King Angus did?

There is an important difference between patient acceptance and passive compliance—between bearing up under our clergy’s foibles and washing our hands when they go astray. We cannot stand idly by while bishops and priests fumble the Image of Christ willy-nilly or undermine the tenets of our Faith through uninformed or scandalous parish ministry, nonsensical public policy, or irreligious submission. Such errors abound, and Catholics should speak out in charity and respect, challenging our pastors to be more mindful when we must be wise as serpents and gentle as doves. 

Like St. Patrick, the laity and the clergy are called to rise above the wreckage and restore. That being said, Catholics ought not to react against perceived lukewarmness, weak personalities, or such manifestations of imperfection in our clergy. In these simple matters of human ignorance or accident, we should suffer in silence, with a mind to prayer and positive example. The resilience of Angus can be a strong model for us, especially when so many good priests are trying hard to walk the weird line between sanity and insanity. If our priests and bishops are doing something egregiously wrong, however, even unwittingly, suffering in silence is not the heroic response. 

Our priests and bishops should look to St. Patrick in the realization that the United States is still missionary territory where the faithless need converting and those fragile in the Faith need leadership. And when that leadership is abused absentmindedly at the expense of orthodoxy or the Body of Christ, we must speak out. It is our duty. The alternative is to succumb to crippling—and perhaps even death by a thousand cuts.

The spiritual sadness Catholics feel over the current state of affairs in the Church is the prevalent temptation to the sly sin of sloth, which is despondency when facing the difficulty of virtue. But patience, as Angus showed, is a species of courage. St. Patrick blundered over Angus’s baptism like a great oaf might, causing harm where none was intended. But when he realized it, he owned up to his embarrassing and inexplicable error. Would that our priests and bishops might tear a page from Patrick’s playbook and be more wary of and accountable for the damage and injury they may be causing by wielding their authority with carelessness or cowardice, and to take greater care to harm no one in their apostolates.

St. Patrick and all his ilk should stand out from the trash of the times, just as his image did in that junk shop; and so should our ordained ministers and our Catholic Faith. Blending in is just another error that our ministers must resist. St. Patrick was a man of fire who boldly preached and practiced the one true Faith among a nation of pagans, and it was his fervor, even when it faltered, that won that nation for Christ. While there is a call for patient forbearance when priests and bishops make honest, well-meaning mistakes that are hurtful or obstructive to our spiritual lives, there is a time and a place for outcry as well. Some pastoral carelessness must be condemned, even if it be by the flock. While King Angus patiently bore a wound inadvertently dealt, when Catholics today are being pierced by clerical indifference or chameleon secular toe-lining, silent tolerance is unacceptable—and St. Patrick would certainly agree.

[Photo Credit: Supplied by author]

Sean Fitzpatrick

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Sean Fitzpatrick is a senior contributor to Crisis and serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a Catholic boarding school for boys in Pennsylvania.

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